“Firebird: A Novel”
Author: Mark Powell
Publisher: Haywire Books
Price: $17.95 (Paperback)
Readers of “Firebird” might not immediately recognize Mark Powell as a Southern writer, but he surely is. At present, Powell is teaching creative writing at Appalachian State in Asheville, North Carolina.
He graduated from The Citadel, but did not become a soldier. He graduated from Yale School of Divinity but did not become a preacher or theologian. Then he took a graduate degree in fiction writing and won a Fulbright year in Slovakia.
To a smart and talented writer like Powell, nothing is wasted; no experience is lost. It is all here in “Firebird,” his sixth novel.
Powell is a writer of literary fiction; “Firebird” is a thriller, but bears little resemblance to a Len Deighton. It is more like a very complicated Le Carré, and it is as demanding of the reader as “Absalom, Absalom!”
The diction is elevated; the characters are complex, with very mixed motives. Several characters are greedy scoundrels, some are cruel sadists. Some are dupes, some disillusioned idealists, some true believers to the end. Some learn and change course. Several have had horrific, soul-shattering experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The delivery system is episodic and fragmented in parts, demanding a good deal even of a good reader.
The action moves around Eastern Europe—Kiev and Bratislava—and various sites of power in New York, Washington and elsewhere and is absolutely contemporary. The last chapter opens in August of 2019.
A gigantic and amoral international corporation, Leviathan, has obtained control of huge natural gas reserves in Slovakia.
In the novel, it is becoming understood that there are huge reserves of natural gas in Eastern Ukraine as well. If Leviathan can keep the Ukrainian reserves from being exploited AND if Leviathan can also cut down the European Union’s purchases of Russian natural gas, under control of the corporation Rosneft, of which Leviathan secretly owns 19 percent, the Russians will then sell profitably it to China, and Leviathan will make untold trillions.
What would suit best is a war in eastern Ukraine, a Russian invasion, which would prevent drilling AND turn the EU against purchasing from Russia.
This of course needs to be done clandestinely and the web of conspiracies and lies which is woven nearly defies comprehending.
It includes a hapless congressman from Florida, Marco Torres, a Cuban-American whose natural anti-communist sentiment is augmented and manipulated. He becomes an influential darling of the far-right, earning the nickname “Dr. No.” He’s against all government legislation meant to help anyone. “He had a district full of aging middle class white men who had watched their 401 (k)s melt while their daughters got high- paying jobs in far-away cities. They had suffered the country molting from lily-white to some indeterminate chattering brown and they were angry. Angry and nostalgic for a past that had never existed….”
These men yearned: “if only someone would stand up for America.”
Congressman Torres is initiated into a mysterious religious organization, The Covenant, modelled perhaps on Opus Dei, in which the Brothers are rising young men who often help on secret projects for elder Brothers “‘who have gone on to higher positions’ … Like Senator, Congressman, Attorney General.” They have prayer meetings and secret meetings as well.
There is at Yale another organization, the Wojtyla Society for Peace and International Cooperation, founded by the most famous Czech dissident, Colonel Tomas Venclova.
(Karol Wojtyla is the birth name of Pope John Paul II.)
This began in virtue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the patron saint, but has been infiltrated by the powerful and sensationally greedy.
Arms are being sent to help the citizens of eastern Ukraine. Arms are also being sent to the Russian agents in eastern Ukraine.
As if the horrors of the material world were not sufficient, there is a powerful metaphysical dimension to this novel. Several of the characters have had transcendent religious experiences: seen angels, experienced death or near-death. And the wife of the American Ambassador has lost her mind to grief.
There is of course a dossier, codenamed “Firebird,” which reveals all the skullduggery, and many will die and be graphically and hideously tortured in attempts to get this dossier to the media or prevent it from being disseminated.
This is a sophisticated political novel, but also a thriller and laced with pain and blood. Powell has won a good many literary awards, but never achieved the wide readership he deserves. He may not his time either. “Firebird” is not for the lazy or tender-hearted reader.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.